Remember When the Future was Bright?
When I was a kid – in the early 80s – we used to spend a lot of time imagining the world in the year 2000. Flying cars, jet-packs and unlimited energy were all part of the genre. Robots doing all the tedious work. People, unburdened by the need to put up with tedious work dedicating themselves to the arts and such.
Mostly it was all about robots and machines and infrastructure and profound societal changes that combined would allow people to live better, happier lives.
I don’t mind telling you, that kid is pretty disappointed. None of that stuff actually happened. In fact, the ongoing crisis is highlighting the extent to which we have in fact NOT changed things too much over the last 40 years. Except now our runway is much, much shorter.
And I guess, yeah, we do have loads of screens around us which we did not have in the 80s.
We are still living in the 80s
Here is an experiment. Look around you, wherever you are. Think of your day-to-day life, for a second.
Now, mentally brush out all the screens from that world but keep everything else in the picture. Without the screens, you might as well be in the 80s, am I right?
Even the god damn clothes and hairdos and #QuarantineMustaches are not that different.
Shockingly, in spite of tremendous progress with computers, the rest of world around us did not change in any fundamental way:
Most people still drive gas-guzzling, combustion-engine-powered things up and down the road. Just like in the 80s.
We are flying around in the same planes we used to fly around then. Sure there are more of them and the in-flight entertainment is better (Screens!), but otherwise, nothing really changed. When we land somewhere, we queue up for hours clutching paper passports which we show to people in little booths, along with arrival forms filled in by hand. That’s exactly what happened in the 80s.
We may use screens to buy products, but these products are built in factories where underpaid, vulnerable people get exploited just like they did in the 80s. These factories pump out toxic substances in the environment while everyone looks away. Just like in the 80s.
Men in their 60s and 70s call the shots in business and politics, just like they did in the 80s. There are many screens in these men’s lives, but their thinking has evolved little in the last few decades. Bullshit power games, simplistic, growth based economics. Old boys’ clubs. Criminal-level ignorance of externalities. It’s all still there, just like in the 80s.
Better educated people drive to work in offices that are only superficially different from the above mentioned factories. On their way to work they drop their children at schools that look and feel exactly like they did in the 80s. They are putting money aside to afford sending their children to universities that are identical with the ones their parents attended and the grandparents before them. Just, it’s a lot more expensive.
Banks charge a small fortune and take days to complete simple cross-border transactions.
Doctors keep patient records on paper and exchange faxes with insurers, just like they did in the 80s.
Why are we still stuck in the 80s?
Sure, there has been progress here and there. But away from the computers and the screens, there is not much exponentiality in this progress, or am I wrong?
And it is not for lack of knowledge, right? We know this stuff is bad and doesn’t work. We have evidence about what works and what doesn’t in education. In productivity. We know about the exploited children and the dying wildlife. We know that our bullshit is warming up the planet at a pace that is unsustainable. Even Covid was something predicted by scientist and modeled, many times over, long time ago.
Yet, we did nothing.
People sleeping on streets in the world’s richest cities. Prisons choke-block full of poor people while wealthy criminals attend panels and run entire countries. Authoritarians with access to commodities are lecturing everyone else in economics. Ruthless companies in cahoots with cynical governments are rigging the game for everyone else.
Jerks in charge everywhere.
Ignore the screens for a second, and the world has not really changed that much.
Bring the Change
Change is not linear though. Thankfully.
Sometimes decades – even centuries – pass without any truly profound changes. And then, there are times when things change in a day more than they have changed in decades and centuries before that.
I believe this is one of those times. The Covid pandemic hit us at a time when profound change is an existential necessity. Whatever awaits on the other side of this will be a new era.
So, as we are all locked-down, watching negative oil prices rolling out on top of negative interest rates, we should be bracing for economic and social impact. There will be blood.
Here’s to hoping that when we do rebuild – and rebuild, we will – we will have the wisdom to build something fundamentally better. Here’s to hoping we manage to pull something off that will be more than the 80s with smart screens.